The colour had faded, the paint was weathered and peeling away. Whispers of advertising past were the focal point of our 2017 team study trip, as we set out to London Bankside to explore Ghost Signs with our guide, author and Ghost Sign expert, Sam Roberts.
Ghost Signs, as they have come to be known, are the remnants of old hand-painted advertising signage usually found on the sides of buildings, walls, woodwork and glass. Their advertising purpose long gone, they are defunct and forgotten, but their remains offer a window into the past built environment.
We began at the Tanneries, where a sign that would usually go unnoticed, suddenly revealed itself from a shaded wall. Our team of ten graphic designers were impressed by the beautiful hand painted letter work, but there is more to Ghost Signs than aesthetics, and Sam was keen to share his knowledge about these historical pieces of art.
‘Thomson Bros Ltd’ was the only clue on the street, but we learned that this was a sign for an old printer in 1909, who had been taken over by a new owner a few years later. Sam had deciphered these details by looking at the layers of the paint. He also researches historic building records to widen the analysis. It was a great lesson for us; the signs tell us more than meets the eye.
Our exploration continues on to a former metalwork building, ‘William Cockle & Co’. This one eerily appearing out of the brickwork of the building’s facade. The various old businesses began to show a theme - the adjacent River Thames. Water being the linking ingredient to the wares of blacksmiths, brewers and printers of the area. The infrastructural link of these signs gave us an insight into the lively past of this industrial hub.
Several of the signs are over a century old, and the majority are presently located in Conservation Areas. Surprisingly, the signs themselves are not specifically protected, it is the buildings that they adhere to which are. It is up to the landowner's’ discretion whether the sign is removed or painted over, typically in the name of ‘smartening up’ by whitewashing the grubby history of the site.
A few streets along we found ourselves at The Morocco store, an example of a Ghost Sign sadly being lost to recent redevelopment. The original typographical artwork was painted over entirely when the building was refurbished. The sign was re-written anew, but just as a superficial pastiche for the developer to cash-into the historical credit of the site. Our guide, Sam, tries to look on the bright side though; time may reveal the original sign once again.
We continued through to Borough Market, where the largest Ghost Sign in this area can be seen. The burgundy letters are striking, but unfortunately, it’s under threat. The Owner of the adjacent building is planning on creating a four-storey hotel which will likely obstruct the Ghost Sign. The sign is unlikely to be saved, but at least it was seen for a time.
Thankfully, attitudes are shifting and there is an increasing awareness of the great historic value and beauty of Ghost Signs. At the most photographed Ghost Sign in the world, ‘Take Courage’ is a great example of their resilience and enduring appeal. Located on Redcross Street, the building it sits on recently sold for £3.0m, which also makes it the most expensive Ghost Sign in the world. It’s message ‘Take Courage’ originally refers to the Courage brewery which was once housed here, but more recently found itself to be a message of defiance against the terror attacks which happened close by. Like all Ghost Signs, it ultimately belongs to the community.
Finally, we gathered as a team to reflect and learn from the day’s experience. Ghost signs are an apt confluence of our work as a practice, combining shifting planning policies, new architecture and lasting graphic design in an urban landscape. Ghost Signs belong to the past, but growing appreciation for them means that hand painted lettering and signage is undergoing a resurgence in popularity. As Graphic Designers it’s an exciting prospect for us, to create new signs that may one day fade, but at least they will be telling of our times.
Thanks to our guide Sam Roberts.
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